Absolute Hell review: Superb performances in a seedy Soho club ★★★★

This 50s play has lost its shock value but the National's slick production is still powerful

Aaron Heffernan as Butch and Kate Fleetwood as Christine, 
(photo: Johan Persson)

Given enough time, what was once unspeakably scandalous will emerge from its subversive past with enough counter-cultural kudos to be appropriated by the mainstream. The leather biker jacket, for example. Or Johnny Rotten selling butter.

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Absolute Hell is a case in point. When it debuted in 1952 (then titled The Pink Room), critics branded it “a libel on the British people”. Perceived as degenerate and vile by the standards of the day, writer Rodney Ackland was so affected by the abuse that he wrote next to nothing for nigh on forty years.

He did, though, return to it in 1988, long after censorship laws had been relaxed. He reworked it for more broad-minded sensibilities (and didn’t miss the chance to add an unsubtle dig at critics). Shortly after it was adapted by the BBC and staged at the National Theatre, which is about as establishment as it gets.

It’s set in a decaying Soho drinking club at the end of the Second World War. The den – which feels impressively cosy on the broad Lyttelton stage – is inhabited by good-time girls, servicemen, misfits, bohemians and fallen artists who quaff liberally and will seduce anything on two legs.

The Company with Eileen Walsh as Madge (photos: Johan Persson)
The Company with Eileen Walsh as Madge (photos: Johan Persson)

Outside in the real world, events of national importance are taking place. Conflict in Europe has come to an end and there are raucous celebrations as a socialist Labour government is about to take power from Churchill. But within the confines of the club, all anyone wants to concern themselves with is where their next drink is coming from.

The question with reviving such a play is: stripped of its ability to provoke, is there substance to what remains? At first appearance, the answer seems to be “no”. The large ensemble revel in their gaudy lives – flirting, arguing and intellectualising seemingly without aim.

But as the overlong first half ends, there’s a hint of something more substantial lurking at the edges, as reality begins to encroach on their booze-numbed enclave. And it’s after the interval that director Joe Hill-Gibbins’ clever production reveals the sober heart of this tragicomic drama.

Harsh realities become harder for the members to ignore. The horrors of the internment camps are revealed by a passing officer; a neglected gay lover walks in to tell their dishevelled other half they’re leaving them for a woman. The self-deception warding off artistic and financial hardship is stripped back.

As each tries to will away what they want to ignore, the play explores how far people will go to avoid facing up to their struggles, and their how own shortcomings shaped them. With their identities and self-esteem so wrapped up in the anodyne fantasy of the bar, it asks what’s left when it starts to crumble – at times quite literally.

There are some great performances. Kate Fleetwood excels as Christine, the owner of the bar, whose underlying emptiness drives her need for company. Charles Edwards exudes a manic anxiety that is both funny and tragic as Hugh, a critically panned writer chasing respect while his life is falling apart. They are ably supported by the large cast.

Shock and outrage are no longer what make Absolute Hell notable, but there was always much more to it than that, and thankfully we can appreciate that now. Like former punk icons, it deserves its place among the establishment.

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Absolute Hell is at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre until 16 June